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Friday, July 08, 2005

The demise of temptation

Temptation - remember that word? It survives mostly in the names of sugary confections promoted by TV ads during the year-end holidays. Or for some of us who are a bit older, we think of Diana Ross and the Temptations, or maybe even the old image of a tiny angel on one shoulder, and a horned and tailed red devil on the other. As a culture, we have a memory of the word, even if in the era of Dr. Phil it has fallen on hard times.

The word temptation, nonetheless, is a crucial one in the conversation we're having in America about issues like homosexuality. Wrapped-up in that one word are two key ideas:

1. Outside influences matter -- No one is an island. We are born into a specific context, a family of some kind that leaves its imprint upon us like a foot in wet cement. No one chooses the environment in which one is raised; it is chosen by others, by the procreative act of a man and woman. As we age, the circle of influence broadens to include peers, teachers, pastors, friends, and many others. Parents soon realize the shaping power of others, and seek to protect the character of their offspring by monitoring those with whom they associate. "Those who lie down with dogs get fleas." Others influence each of us, for evil or for good.

2. Ultimately, each of us must choose our own path -- While outside influences matter, each of us is faced with a decision. Temptation would not be temptation if we were obligated or forced to act in a certain way. That would be compulsion. Christian theology teaches that there is a tendency in the human heart to follow what is wrong. On the other hand, there is divine influence upon us, calling us to a better way. In the end, we will follow that path to which we surrender the power of our own will.

So what does temptation teach us about the current dialogue on homosexuality? It tells us that both sides in the debate have latched on to part of the truth, but are neglecting the rest of it. How so?

On the one hand are the rabid sign-carriers, those who are ready to condemn the homosexual to hell. They see only a person who has chosen evil, and could have chosen good. Such a misguided zealot has forgotten that, while God might not create a person as a homosexual, the complex dyanamics of early life, what psychologists call "nurture," are an incredibly powerful force that should not be dismissed out-of-hand.

On the other hand are the advocates for so-called "gay marriage," who are agitating at all levels of government for a change in the notion of what marriage is, i.e. a life-long union between one man and one woman. They have correctly understood the power of early-life influences upon their own character. However, they have failed to realize that however strong those influences, they do not rob the individual of moral choice. While they may not choose the feelings of same-sex attraction, they still have the power, with God's help, to choose how to respond to those feelings.

When I briefly taught theology at a Christian university in the United States, homosexuality was a topic on which students wanted answers. Temptation is the most important idea upon which a Christian response should be built. The concept of temptation forces each of us to listen with compassion to the individual struggling with same-sex attraction. We realize the power of outside influences, whether on the internet, television, or from upbringing. Because of this, while we acknowledge the destructiveness of any sin, we cannot glibly condemn. We can only love! In the same way, we realize the power of grace, that God does not leave us alone in our temptation, but will help those who ask for it. Equally importantly, we will seek to surround such persons with positive influences, others who refuse to view homosexuality as a "greater" offence, but only as one of a long list of maladies that the Lord can heal.

The next time someone says "I am gay," challenge them to put it this way instead: "I'm constantly tempted to act on my romantic feelings toward others of my gender, and too often, I fail." With God's help, and the help of caring others, the next time they can say: "While I'm still tempted in this way, more and more, I'm able to overcome this temptation." In this way, let us bring the resources of the Christian faith to the rescue of many who didn't choose their orientation, but are looking for help to head in a new direction. Would Jesus do any less?

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